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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Whatever happened to Bobbie Gentry?

By Ted Slowik

I love quirky rock 'n' roll stories. Bobbie Gentry rose from total obscurity to the height of fame in 1967 with her hit, "Ode to Billie Joe." For the better part of a decade she was a huge star on the country and rock charts and appeared on numerous TV shows. Then one day she simply walked away, and hasn't been heard from in 35 years.

"Ode" was a monster hit. In its first week of release it sold 750,000 copies (on its way to 3 million total) and knocked The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" from the top of the Billboard rock chart, where it stayed for four weeks. It was the fourth biggest-selling song of 1967 and earned her three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist--the first country performer to receive that honor.

Gentry was a trailblazer as one of the first female country artists to write and produce most of her own material. She was born Roberta Lee Streeter in 1944 in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. An only child, she moved with her mother to California at age 13 after her parents divorced. She took her stage name from the movie "Ruby Gentry," about a poor, rural seductress.

She studied and taught herself music in the 1960s, and a demo she made found its way to Capitol Records A&R man Kelly Gordon. "Ode" was recorded on July 10, 1967, in the iconic Capitol Tower in Los Angeles. The song was the B-side of her first single, "Mississippi Delta." Producer/arranger Jimmie Haskell reportedly asked Gordon, "'What do you want me to do?' (Gordon) said, 'Just put some strings on it so we won't be embarrassed. No one will hear it anyway.'"

Life magazine photo of Gentry on the Tallahatchie Bridge
But radio stations liked the B-side better, and "Ode" went on to become a classic. Like many of her early works, Gentry's song mentions landmarks, social and cultural references of her childhood, including the Tallahatchie Bridge (which collapsed in 1972). According to a 2013 article in Performing Songwriter magazine, Gentry is said to have once told rock journalist Fred Bronson, “The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty. But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important.

“Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”
In 2012, Roseanne Cash hosted the BBC documentary "Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry?" Though Gentry herself didn't appear in the documentary, the show's researchers reported, "At the end we heard that she'd phoned a couple of her old producers in the last few years--one, Rick Hall, to talk about Reba McEntire's version of 'Fancy'; the other, Jimmie Haskell, to say that she'd written a new song. He didn't have time to help produce it, so he suggested someone else. Bobbie never contacted them. And now she won't return Haskell's calls."

Roseanne Cash has performed "Ode" with guitarist John Leventhal numerous times, including at the Library of Congress in December 2013.

After the huge success of "Ode to Billie Joe," Gentry went on to record a half-dozen albums of original material and chart 11 singles. (She was not a one-hit wonder.) She recorded with Glen Campbell and performed on TV with stars like Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Carol Burnett and Bobby Darin. Here she is dueting with Johnny Cash. Here she is in an unlikely trio with Bing Crosby and Tiny Tim.

She was a huge star in Nashville, Hollywood and in the U.K. She was married three times, briefly to casino magnate Bill Harrah and then to entertainer Jim Stafford, and has reportedly lived quietly with her third husband in Los Angeles. One of her last public appearances was on Christmas night, 1978, as a guest on "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson."

Today, she's like the J.D. Salinger of 1960s entertainment stars. "Ode" shows how with just one song, an artist can achieve huge success and create a lasting legacy.